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The Villisca Axe Murder:
A Forgotten Chapter of American Violence

By Edgar V. Epperly

Page - 6

Copyrighted image by Diane Sutherland courtesy Fourth Wall Films
M. W. McClaughry thought the killer was left-handed based on his examination of blood spatters and axe marks in the Moore house.  In an effort to determine Kelly's preference, his captors asked him if he would like to chop some wood for excercise.  Kelly obliged and swang the axe left-handed.

The final leg in the state’s case against Kelly was his confession.  He had been interrogated repeatedly throughout the summer, but as the trial drew near, the state officials decided on one final all-out effort to get him to confess.  Late in the afternoon of August 30, Kelly was brought into an interrogation room in the Logan Jail and confronted by Attorney General Horace Havner, State Agents O. O. Rock and James Risden, and the Harrison County Sheriff, M.D. Meyers.  Thus began a grilling that was to last throughout the night.  All big men, they played the bad cop role with the diminutive Kelly, breaking occasionally to return him to his cell.  In his cell he now found two “thieves” who assured him from their long criminal experiences it would go easier on him if he confessed.  One of these “criminals” was actually a deputy sheriff from Pottawattamie County, G.W. Atkins, and the other a newspaper editor from Missouri Valley.

By about 7:00 a.m. the next morning Kelly broke and dictated a confession.  In this confession he claimed to have had difficulty sleeping the murder night, so he went for a walk.   While walking down the middle of the street he saw a light in a house and two children (the Stillinger girls) getting ready for bed.  He heard the Lord’s voice commanding him to “suffer the children to come unto me.”  In a trance-like state, he walked to the back of the house, picked up the axe, went in the kitchen door, and proceeded to kill everyone.  He stayed in the house until first light, then let himself out the front door and left town.

Copyrighted photo courtesy Edgar V. Epperly
The jury for the Kelly trial is seated on the left.  Wilkerson is second from the right near the table.

Armed with this evidence against Kelly they brought him to trial on Tuesday, September 4, 1917.  The trial lasted until Wednesday, September 26, when Judge Boice turned the proceedings over to the jury.  The jury deadlocked eleven to one for acquittal and was dismissed Friday, September 28, 1917.  A second cursory trial was held in November of 1917 with Kelly being acquitted for all charges.

By the time the trial began in September, a majority of Montgomery County citizens were convinced that Kelly was being framed as part of a conspiracy led by F.F. Jones.  In their eyes, Jones had used his money and political influence first to pack the 1916 jury, then called on his crony, Attorney General Havner, to mislead the 1917 grand jury.   Now they were framing the poor deluded Kelly.

After the second Kelly trial in November of 1917, the Villisca Axe Murder Case was legally at an end.  The grand jury would not indict Mansfield and Jones and the petit jury would not convict Lyn Kelly.  There were no other suspects.  Although many other murders occurred during the years between 1912 and 1917, the serial killer had not struck again, so that avenue was also closed.  Consequently, while the case remained open, it was essentially over, leaving immense frustration on all sides.  Family and friends of the victims were thwarted in their search for justice.  Havner and most other police officials were convinced that Wilkerson had so poisoned the minds of Montgomery County citizens that they had let the real killer go free.  Nothing was resolved as both sides glowered at each other in impotent fury.

Copyrighted photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films
John Warren Noel

That is not to say that there weren’t several minor aftershocks.  Between trials, John Warren Noel, Villisca photographer and staunch Wilkerson supporter and important witness in the slander suit, was found shot and dying on the railroad platform in Albia, Iowa.  The Wilkerson crowd tried to suggest murder to shut him up, but an Albia coroner’s inquest found it to be a suicide.  (Railroad detectives were hot on his trail for an attempt to collect money from the “Q” for preventing an accident they believed he staged.)

In June 1918, James Wilkerson and Mae Noel, John’s widow, were arrested in an Ottumwa, Iowa hotel on the charge of conspiracy to commit adultery.  Six months later, their trial jury hung over the question of whether they could convict Jim and not Mae.  The judge ruled he didn’t see how they could convict one without the other.  During the summer of 1918, Wilkerson was busy running for Montgomery County Attorney.  He easily won the Republican nomination and would have certainly won the general election in November, but to get on the ballot he first had to be admitted to the Iowa Bar.  His application to the Iowa Supreme Court provoked a dramatic response from Attorney General Havner.  Havner collected a long dossier in opposition to Wilkerson’s application and in light of these rather incriminating documents, Wilkerson withdrew his application and returned to Kansas City.  The entire dossier is currently in the State of Iowa Archives.

At that point, the court action ceased and all hope of legally solving the case ended.   Montgomery County citizens, exhausted and bitter, tried to put the case behind them, but feelings sputtered to life whenever someone new confessed or the Des Moines Register ran a feature article about the case, or one of the principals died.  Even though feelings remained and resentment festered, official actions pertaining to the Villisca Axe Murder had ended.

Copyrighted photo courtesy Fourth Wall Films
The Montgomery County Courthouse in Red Oak, Iowa was the setting for the slander suit and both Kelly trials.

Ambiguity towards the murder best describes Villisca today.  It is the defining event in the town’s history; in fact, it gives the town a definition most communities lack, but it was such an evil event that citizens are uncertain how to deal with that history.   Many just wish it would go away, while others grope about for a moral way to use the notorious event to slow or reverse the economic decline that Villisca has endured since World War II.  Villisca is struggling with the same forces of population, transportation, and economic change that are fast turning Iowa into Nebraska.

The Moore house has been purchased, renovated and opened as a private museum by an entrepreneur.  The community has for the past few years held a summer reunion that emphasizes many historical factors in Villisca’s development, but certainly the celebration’s centerpiece for visitors from outside Montgomery County remains the murder.  It is unclear how these ambivalent community reactions to the murder will resolve themselves in the future.  The murder is a case study in community reaction to moral rather than physical tragedy.  As such, it has much to teach the larger society, but it remains a slippery subject to present without seeming to exploit the slaughtered innocents.  Whether the community can find a way to extract a moral meaning without exploiting the tragedy is the problem Villisca is struggling with today.

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